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A question for anyone who does any research

  1. Jul 5, 2009 #1
    I'll be an AerE freshman this fall, and I was amazed at my university library's stacks of journals. The peer-reviewed journals seem to have so many articles and details, that it seems as though someone has already done some research on just about everything. So for anyone who is a researcher, do you spend most of your time conducting the research, or more time just searching for an unanswered question to study? Because (from a novice's perspective) it looks rather difficult to find anything new with so much already out there.


  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 6, 2009 #2
    I am a graduate student in mathematics, so I haven't done publication level research yet, but I have some perspective. I would say that there is definitely no shortage of unanswered questions. There are tons of them. If you become a graduate student, your advisor will be well aware of many problems that you could tackle to do your Ph.D. thesis on, within his area of expertise. Also, a lot of research is creating new problems, if that makes sense. As new areas are created all the time, this opens up many more channels of possible research. Hopefully this helps.
  4. Jul 6, 2009 #3

    Andy Resnick

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    That is perhaps the most natural question in the world!

    Personally, here's how I go- I pick a topic of interest (say mechanosensation, or the glassy state, or maybe some experimental technique like polarimetry or laser tweezers). The choice of topic is somewhat arbitrary, but is a balance between generic and specific. 'Topics' must be able to last for several years before becoming exhausted. I also select topics after consulting colleagues- since I am starting something new, I ask around to see if other people see the utility or are also interested in that topic.

    Then, I hit the literature- what has been done already? Usually, there are some large 'open problems' (for mechanosensation, it's 'what is the transduction mechanism?', for the glassy state, it's 'how does the glassy state come to be?') which are not solved- if the major problems are solved, I pick another topic.

    Typically what is in the literature is, broadly speaking, attempts to solve the unsolved problem. Maybe the papers represent the development of a model system. Maybe there are some preliminary solutions awaiting experimental confirmation. Maybe there are conflicting results- some people say the solution is 'x', another says the solution is 'y'.

    Then I go into the lab and start doing what I want, to contribute to a better understanding of 'the topic'. A good research program is one where a solution leads to a new problem.

    Anyhow, all that can take several months. As an advisor, I pre-select topics for students mostly to weed out the dead ends.
  5. Jul 6, 2009 #4
    haha, I used to ask this all the time when I was in grade school.
    It'll be interesting to see everyone's research methodology here...
  6. Jul 7, 2009 #5
    Heh, I understand the feeling. I'm a grad student in particle astrophysics. I also haven't made any publications yet, but I can say with certainty that there are plenty of unanswered questions. Sometimes you can even make contributions without necessarily discovering anything groundbreaking. I'm doing experimental physics, so my publications and thesis will likely just involve measuring some source and extracting the spectrum. It might seem mundane, but the bigger discoveries are usually made in small steps.
  7. Jul 7, 2009 #6


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    Dead end topics or dead end students? :rofl:
  8. Jul 7, 2009 #7

    Andy Resnick

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    nice- both, I guess! :)
  9. Jul 7, 2009 #8


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    This is why you need a research supervisor.

    For a student, you very seldom initiate your own research work. You either join an existing research project that has been established at your institution, or your adviser will suggest several that you can work on.

    Now, it doesn't mean that you always will stick to the initial plan. It is not out of the question that eventually, after you become not only more proficient in that area of study, but also become more aware of what is known and what isn't, that you may come up with your own idea on what to pursue. This is something you can certainly choose to do with the consent of your adviser.

    While it may look daunting to find something "new" based on what we already know and what has been published, the "unknowns" in the universe are almost infinite. There are plenty of things we do not know very well in varying degree. In fact, if you check last week's Phys. Rev. Lett., there is still a paper on "Why Does Water Expand When It Cools?"[1]. You'd think that by now, we know all there is to know on that topic, but obviously, there are still subtle issues that are still being resolved!

    So there are still plenty of work to be done.


    [1] M. Matsumoto Phys. Rev. Lett. v.103, p.017801 (2009).
  10. Jul 8, 2009 #9
    Thanks for your responses everyone!
  11. Jul 8, 2009 #10


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    I might just add that this is why you have to spend a LOT of time reading if you want to do research in a given field. As suggested above, in the beginning a research advisor is supposed to point you in a good direction, but then it's up to you to read up on everything that is being done in a given field and stay current with it while simultaneously doing your own research.

    Also, I think that over the next few decades we will see a lot more 'cross-disciplinary' type work where authors take older ideas from traditionally non-related fields to push their own fields forward.
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